Saturday, April 18, 2009

Crossing the Streets in Saigon

Here is a little video to teach you how to cross those streets in'll catch the Tran Hung Dao Statue if you watch carefully as she tries to make her second crossing with someone's help. It's a wonderful feeling to get to the other side.

Watch more Ho Chi Minh City videos at

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A cyclo ride, pets and the Saigon River

There's a first time for everything, as the old cliché goes. But much truth lies in those trite adages, especially when you embark on a cyclo in Saigon, which is a far, far cry of an experience from boarding a cyclo in Hue for instance. My suggestion, after having taken this ride in different cities, is to do Saigon first. The reason for this is that if you can survive Saigon, all cyclo rides will be cake walks thereafter. So, today, is a bright sunny day, perfect for sightseeing, and I've already learned to cross the street without fainting. 

 expert cyclo drivers will follow you till you relent
During my two days in the hotel room, Chuck had been wandering the streets of Saigon, was all over District 1, photographing every last molecule of the place and talking to strangers, which is perfectly normal. During his jaunts, he told me of a particularly insistent cyclo driver who wanted to take him everywhere. You never have to look for a cyclo, as they are there and always looking for you. They are much more aggressive than the tuk-tuk drivers of Bangkok, in that they will follow you, hound you, grab your arm, and if you don’t want them now, how about later? Don’t ever think that the word later gets you off the hook, because they will pin you down to a time. And as luck would have it, they also know from which hotel you hail. Or at least, they knew where we were staying, and I have to blame Chuck entirely for that. Chuck Not only did he become best buddies with the baker, but also the drivers got to know him, the restaurant owners, and the cabbies. It also doesn’t help that his camera has a lens that looks like a weapon.

This hotel has been around since 1925, and is on the corner of Dong Khoi Street and the Saigon River hugging Ton Duc Thang Street

One of those afternoons, Chuck returned from what he called the 'Pet Market'. With photos naturally. The dogs and cats were simply adorable; when it came to the snakes, I wasn't particularly taken with the idea of a pet snake, and then I saw the turtles. I began to wonder if the 'pet market' was a food market in disguise. Let me show you pages from a menu, one of the many, that I insisted we photograph, because of the unusual offerings.

The turtle is considered a lucky animal in Vietnam. This doesn't prevent people from eating it. The word for turtle is 'quy', and during our travels, we would find this name attached to restaurants and shops quite often. On the menu, it shows up as 'ba ba'. This appetite for turtles has nothing to do with the giant turtle that was recently spotted by scientists in Northern Vietnam, where in fact, scientists have been very concerned about conservation efforts. Have a look at the turtle sale going on here, right by the Saigon River. The women are crouching or sitting on small plastic stools and covered almost completely, as they do not want to tan. The turtles are at the bottom on the cage rack, with snakes in between. Speaking of snakes, this animal is considered to bring virility to those who eat it. There are specific restaurants in Saigon who serve only snake, and various ways of eating it. Some also partake of the snake's blood, squeezed directly from its neck, for its aphrodisiac qualities. No thanks, I'd rather be frigid. However, if this sort of thing excites you, please visit this web page where you'll also see a photo of the blood squeezing exercise, tips on how to get to Snake Alley, the cost of a typical snake meal, and other juicy tidbits. Actually, the snakes for sale by the Saigon River look like worms compared to the King cobras which you can eat for only $600/each.

This brings to mind the Snake Village we had visited in Northern Chiang Mai when we were in Thailand. It wasn't about eating actually, but rather watching the skill of the Thai in not getting mortally bitten by poisonous snakes. Quite a show!

Now you want to see the kind of pets I'd like to hold?

way too cute to eat

and I don't recall seeing anyone ever walking a dog!
Well so much for the pet market. Back to our two friends and their cyclo adventure. Or was it our adventure? Not an English word was exchanged, but we were getting a tour and being dropped back at the hotel. You will agree to a price, the length of the ride and ascertain they know where they are going. And of course, it means nothing. OK, OK, OK . These are the most famous Vietnamese words in the vocabulary.Each one of us had a camera, but in truth, I was too frozen in fright to take pictures, so there may be one or two that were mine, but most were Chuck who I caught laughing, along with my driver about my expressions. The ride started rather calmly on Hai Ba Trung Street, and got progressively more daring as we made our way round the circle and toward the Saigon River.

Ton Duc Thang Street is more like one of those beautiful wide boulevards that are the legacy of the French colonial days, and runs all alongside the river, and if you take the time not to panic, you'll see many renown spots, like the Majestic Hotel, pictured above. There is a great aerial view of the street here, but believe me, the traffic is never so sparse.
This monument is the center point of a circle around the large statue of Tran Ngyuen Han in District 1. It is at the end of Le Loi Boulevard, another major artery, which is reputed for the Ben Thanh Market, which I promised we would visit.

Ton Duc Thang Street is also replete with high rise buildings, cafes and restaurants, banks and other businesses.

If you are on foot here, you'll be able to watch the freighters and passenger ferries all busy at work. Here you can book a dinner cruise for later in the evening or perhaps plan an interesting one-day tour upriver by speedboat with several stops, including the Binh Quoi Tourist Village .

You will now witness the sequence of photographs capturing my introduction to oncoming traffic on Ton Duc Thang Street. This is not meant to discourage you in any way whatsoever. Rather, by doing this, it really enabled me to become fearless not only riding cyclos but crossing just about any street in Saigon or Hanoi.

 you can see the beginning of alarm on my face here

 my toothless driver signals peace, but I'm not sure he should

 this is the point at which he lost his mind....
 and I thought I was losing my mind as well
 we are finally on the right side of the street going in the right direction

 what kind of hand signal is this?
I am beginning to regain my composure as we have made it safely from oncoming traffic to the right lane, which runs along the sidewalk closest to the river. I believe it was at that point that I felt safe enough to take my camera out of my purse. I caught a couple of pictures of Chuck, but altogether, nothing else. He looks like Mr. Cool here with a thumb up, as if nothing major is happening. He actually also had the courage to get on a motorbike with one of his photography friends. So this must be child's play for him.

This looks like we are back on Leloi. Actually, these guys are sometimes a bit tricky. They wanted to drop us off in the middle of nowhere, claiming that on certain streets cyclos are not allowed. We refused to pay them, and with hand signals and a map, insisted they take us back to our hotel. However, have fun with your ride, and remember that whatever you end up paying them is pennies compared to relative costs of transport anywhere else.

This is coming around that circle again. I'm always full of admiration when I see a woman driving one of those bikes. They are positively fearless.